When you hook into a big striper from a kayak, you're nothing more than an extension of the drag system.
In the Southeast, there is not a freshwater fish that compares with a big striped bass in its ability to make a drag sing and leave an angler’s arms and shoulders aching with fatigue. Tangle with one of the brutes that rule the food chain at Lake Lanier, and you will feel the helplessness that comes from watching line strip off a spool with thumb-burning speed. All you can do is white-knuckle the rod, jam the butt into your midsection, hold on and hope the trolling motor can keep pace with the fish before it spools you. It’s the most thrilling fight you can find on a Georgia reservoir.
Now try it in a kayak. It’ll make you feel like “The Old Man and the Sea.”
“They take off like a freight train, and it’s just hold on!” said Tony Narcisse, president of the Georgia Kayak Fishing Club (GKF). “The boat actually becomes part of the drag system. It’s nothing for a big striper to take you on a 50- to 100-yard ride.”
That ride is the rush that is catching on in Georgia. Once just a means for anglers to get to the rivers and coastal flats inaccessible to larger boats, kayaks have become a preferred craft for some anglers. Their light weight makes them no-hassle boats to load onto a truck or into the water anywhere, with or without a boat ramp. They are inexpensive in comparison to power boats, in both initial cost as well as in gas and upkeep, and you can rig them with pretty much all of the electronics, bait tanks and rodholders that make a boat a fishing boat… everything but a motor.
Obviously, getting around on a major reservoir can be a little difficult with just a pair of arms for propulsion, especially when you’re targeting fish that move as much as stripers do. This makes it a necessity to do a little homework, and put in near the fish. That’s where a bait shop dialed into the fishing community comes in handy.
I met Tony and some of his friends from GKF at Hammond’s Fishing Center in Cumming on a mild February morning to get a few buckets of bait and the lowdown on the stripers. As always, Jason Hammond was up-to-date on the striper report and suggested there might be some fish at Bald Ridge Creek.
Off we went in a caravan of kayak-laden vehicles to Mary Alice Park, where the ramps were out of the water by at least 10 feet. With no access for regular boaters, we had the place to ourselves, and as we unloaded the kayaks and filled them with gear, we watched gulls circle and dive on baitfish being pushed to the top by fish that were also busting on the surface. As it turned out, we might have spent too much time talking. By the time we got the boats in the water and paddled out into the lake, the schooling activity had ended, and the birds were content to sit on the water and watch the people paddling around in funny little boats.
That’s another advantage of fishing from a kayak. The wildlife doesn’t seem to take as much offense to a small, quiet boat as it does to an outboard motor.
“A kayak won’t put the fish down like a boat will. You can paddle right into it, and the fish will be busting all around you. The stealthiness of a kayak is a huge advantage,” said Stan Laughlin, of Capt. Dick Enterprises.
Stan has been fishing from a kayak since 2000, and his business since 2005 has been customizing kayaks into fishing boats. A sit-on-top boat with a PFD, paddle and the bare minimum of customizations for fishing, which includes a bait tank and rodholders, costs about $800. The addition of a depthfinder, which is pretty much a necessity, an anchor trolley kit, an upgraded seat and other accessories can run up the bill to more than $2,000 — still a fraction of the cost of a typical striper boat.
“You name it, we do it,” Stan said. “Just about anything you can put on a bass boat or a flats boat, you can put on a kayak.”
Tony’s boat was certainly more than the bare minimum. He was equipped with four rodholders, a livewell that serves as a bait tank, a depthfinder console positioned on the deck in front of him and a large tackle box strapped to the deck behind his seat — everything an angler needs to troll, cast or downline for stripers.
“We’re just going to pull a slow troll across the creek and look for some fish,” Tony said as we paddled away from the bank.
The boat I borrowed was not rigged with a depthfinder, so my plan was to stick close to Tony, hoping to get in on any fish he might find on the graph. We used the same techniques you would use in a power boat, but on a smaller scale.
“Most fishermen can pull four lines, but you can get tangled real quick if you catch a fish… I know I’m going to catch a fish, so I usually only go with two,” Tony quipped.
It didn’t take Tony long to get his two lines out. Both were baited with 6-inch rainbow trout hooked through the nose. One was what Tony called a fish-finder rig. The other was a slip-float rig modified from a technique he uses for seatrout and redfish. The fish-finder rig is just like a downline rig, or a big Carolina rig, which uses an in-line trolling sinker attached to the 15- or 20-lb.-test main line. About 6 feet of 15-lb. fluorocarbon leader is tied to the other eye of the sinker, with a 1/0 Kahle hook tied on the business end.
Tony said the sinker can be from 3/4-oz. up to 2-ozs. depending on the depth you wish to target, and he sometimes uses 2/0, light-wire circle hooks, as well, depending on the size of the fish targeted and the size of the bait he’s using.
For the slip-float rig, he threads a 6-inch sliding float onto the main line and follows it with a bead and a 3/4-oz. in-line trolling weight. He ties about 6 feet of the same fluorocarbon leader on the other eye of the sinker, and finishes it off with the Kahle hook tied on with a snell knot to pull the hook into the corner of a fish’s mouth. He wraps a rubber band around the line below the float to serve as a stopper. This rig puts the bait anywhere from on the surface down to about 10 feet depending on how fast you paddle. Some people also pull their unweighted baits on planer boards, but Tony prefers the slip float because, with only two lines out, he doesn’t pull a very wide spread.
I was a little slower in getting out a freeline and fish-finder rig, one in a rodholder between my legs in front of me and one in another rodholder behind me. Reaching around for the rod and bait bucket behind me took a little getting used to, but once I realized the boat was pretty stable, it wasn’t a problem. I caught up with Tony in the basin in front of Bald Ridge Marina where we had seen the action from the shore.
“I’m not marking anything,” he said, sounding glum. “They must have moved out.
“I’m looking for bait, and I’m also looking to find fish. The striper don’t relate to cover when they’re moving and feeding. You’ve got to find the bait to find the fish. It’s important to keep moving until you find them.”
In March, stripers on Lanier will be in the middle to the backs of the creeks, depending on where the bluebacks are. Diving birds and fish busting on the surface are dead give aways, but sometimes you have to look a little harder on the graph to find them feeding on bait balls deeper in the water column. Tony said some good spots to start searching are at Bald Ridge, Flat Creek or Shoal Creek, but he added that it is more important, especially in a kayak, to listen to folks who have been on the lake recently and know where the fish are.
March is also a good month to be on the lake in a kayak because of the limited traffic from pleasure cruisers. Fishing-boat traffic is also limited right now because of the low water levels, but Tony said that is a bad thing. Radio contact with other fishermen on the lake is another good way to keep up with where the fish are and what they’re doing. While you can hardly fire up the big motor in a kayak, you can put it on the truck and drive to another spot.
We were paddling slowly around the basin pulling lines and looking for fish with no luck when we noticed some birds getting active in a cove several hundred yards away. It was time to see if that freelined trout was any good at water skiing. We dug in with our paddles, pushing for the surface-schooling activity, but arrived just as things were settling down. It was a little frustrating not being able to get there a little quicker, but the same thing has happened to me at least a dozen times using a trolling motor, and an outboard certainly would have put the fish down anyway.
“They may have gone down, but they’re still here,” Tony said, watching the graph.
Boom! One of his rods bent to the water shaking his kayak a bit. Tony reached forward to wrestle his rod from its holder, lifted and it sprung straight. The fish had pulled loose, taking his bait.
“Aw, I missed him,” Tony said. “That was definitely a striper. Did you see the way he hit it?”
Stripers don’t nibble or bite, they slam your bait, and when one hits, you know it. That’s half the fun of trolling for striped bass, the anticipation that comes from watching rods and waiting for one to bow to the water. That anticipation is heightened in a kayak, as you are sitting right on the water. It is a more intimate connection with the lake and with the fish. Intimate in a sense that you’re going to feel it through your whole body when that big, bad fish hits, bends the rod and rocks the whole boat, as well.
Sadly, I was not able to experience the thrill of fighting a striper from a kayak that day. I caught a spotted bass, as did several of the people we were fishing with, but no stripers. It was not the first time, and it definitely won’t be the last time I get shut out chasing striped bass.
We had moved out of the back of Bald Ridge toward the main lake looking for fish when the wind picked up ahead of an incoming front. It was hard work paddling against a strong wind on the way in, but you couldn’t stop paddling or the steady blow would push you back against the ground you had already gained. By the time we made it back to the shore, my arms were a little tired with that content feeling that comes after a decent workout.
One more thing about fishing from a kayak — which I feel is a positive — is, even if you go fishless, it’s more than just a boat ride. It’s just plain peaceful and fun to be out in a small boat without the ever-present smell of gasoline or the irritation of a noisy motor.
Tony and GKF are trying to introduce people to the pleasures of kayak fishing through appearances at shows and online at <www.georgiakayakfishing.com>.
“When we first started three years ago, it was just me, my wife and three other guys,” Tony said. “It went from just a few guys in silly little plastic boats to some real interest. We now have over 400 members.”
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